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Art of Catering Food Serves Up the Smiles

After a four-year hiatus, Art of Catering Food brought chefs from all walks of life together in Orlando, FL

Walking into the Orange County Convention Center on the first day of Art of Catering Food (co-sponsored by Catersource Conference & Tradeshow along with the International Caterers Association) could almost be compared to a family reunion: hugs were shared, photos were snapped, and the room was truly buzzing with electricity. After a four-year hiatus, Art of Catering Food once again brought chefs from all walks of life together for a two-day intensive featuring learning, inspiration, and of course sampling!  

Chef Jay Varga (The JDK Group and President of the International Caterers Association Culinary Council) presented Salads…Who Needs Lettuce? during Art of Catering Food in Orlando, FL. Photo courtesy WASIO Faces

“This conference is my jam, and you are my people,” said Chef Karen O’Connor (Daniel et Daniel).  

Back in the kitchen 

The first day of Art of Catering Food (affectionately referred to as AOCF by organizers and attendees alike) kicked off with opening remarks from Chef Robin Selden (Marcia Selden Catering & Events) before going into the day’s packed schedule. 

AOCF attendees enjoyed a shrimp, artichoke, peas & lemon orecchiette sample during Charlie Schaffer's session, The New Risotto…Dry Pasta. Photo courtesy Savannah Spirov

First up, Charlie Schaffer (with Schaffer LA) demonstrated (during his session The New Risotto…Dry Pasta) how the same technique used for preparing risotto can be applied to other pasta dishes in order to create a creamy texture that is a strong menu candidate for your buffets, small plates, and plated services. 

“You can go a million different ways with this,” he said. “Guests want to see pasta on the menu, and this holds up really well.” 

Next up, Connor Black (Footers Catering) broke down some of the key logistics for setting up an offsite mobile kitchen (The Offsite Kitchen).

Rounding out the morning, Chefs Jay Varga and Joshua House with The JDK Group looked at how to elevate a salad beyond lettuce (Salads…Who Needs Lettuce?). Check out the summer issue of Catersource magazine for more on this.  

Chef Jay Varga (The JDK Group) served a tuna salad bite (topped with wasabi pearls) during his session, Salads…Who Needs Lettuce? Photo courtesy Savannah Spirov

Following the lunch break (more on that later), Black once again took the stage along with Jason Sutton to give an in-depth look at how Footers has been able to retrofit their box trucks to become portable kitchens and prep spaces (Truck Packing 101). 

Next, Mark Ellis (the Chef’s Table) and Thomas Pardo (Footers Catering) gave insight into techniques and formulas for how to have zero waste (Zero Waste Prep: Designing a Menu to Maximize Time & Profit) while maximizing production time in the most efficient manner possible.  

AOCF attendees were treated to Chef Nettie Frank's Blueberry Cobbler Doughnuts during her session, Beyond Basic: Doughnuts = Dollars. Photo courtesy Savannah Spirov

Closing down the first day of AOCF, Chef Nettie Frank took a tasty look at all thing doughnuts (Beyond Basic: Doughnuts = Dollars).  

Talking tacos 

In addition to the traditional seminars, day one of AOCF also brought back a crowd favorite: the Lunch & Learn.  

The Lunch & Learn talked all things tacos: tortillas, fillings, and toppings. During lunch, attendees could build their own tacos using such ingredients as: braised lamb, roasted root vegetables, birria, salsa quemada, and roasted poblano slaw. Photo courtesy Savannah Spirov

During this session, Roy Porter and a stellar lineup of chefs (Phuoc Vo, Keyon Hammond, and Paul Buchanan) took a deconstructed look at tacos–the tortilla, the fillings, and the toppings. Following the session, attendees then went next door to enjoy a meal the chefs had prepared, while also getting some one-one discussion time with the chefs. Vo also encouraged attendees to try their hand at making their own tortillas.  

Every dish has a narrative 

Day two of AOCF welcomed James Beard nominated Chef Yia Vang (of Union Hmong Kitchen) to the stage. 

“I never wanted to get into cooking,” he told audiences.  

James Beard nominated Chef Yia Vang (Union Hmong Kitchen) delivered this year's keynote during Art of Catering Food. Photo courtesy WASIO Faces

Vang opened with a brief history of the Hmong people (and their relationship to food) before diving into his own family story. 

“Hmong isn’t a type of food, it’s a philosophy of food,” he said. “If you remove one of these elements (rice, protein, vegetable, and hot sauce) it would not be considered dinner–it's a snack. All of those ingredients work cohesively together. Hmong food is all about cohesiveness, about balance.

“Food has to work together.”

Vang (one of seven siblings) was born in a Thai refugee camp where he lived until his family resettled in central Wisconsin. Vang’s father worked as a carpenter and welder and his only wish for his son was that he never had to work hard, or struggle, like he did. 

“I love the fact that I get to work with my hands like my dad did,” he said. “I love that I’m on my feet 12 hours a day like my dad. You work when your friends play, and the kitchen culture becomes like a weird family. It rejuvenates my soul.”

When Vang opened Union Hmong Kitchen, his goal was to bring Hmong flavors to American palates while inviting people to change how they think about food by considering the influences in each bite.

“Food is a catalyst to cultivating great relationships,” he said. 

Vang is currently in the process of opening Vinai, a brick-and-mortar restaurant focused on Hmong culture and cuisine. 

“This is an ecosystem. Our cultural DNA is intricately woven into the food that we eat,” he said. “One generation lives their life fully and sacrifices themselves so that a little bit of themselves can grow the next generation. I’m going to use food to tell their story.” 

Round and round we go  

Following a brief meet-and-greet (and sampling) with Vang, it was time to get moving! Over the next couple hours, attendees split into four distinct groups which traveled among four sessions: Beef & Reef (Sutton); How to Start a Pastry Kitchen in 12 Recipes (Bryce Cherven); Top That! (O’Connor); and Apps that Slap! (Chris Towne). Each session provided a sample to attendees.

In her session, How to Start a Pastry Kitchen in 12 Recipes, Bryce Cherven (Footers Catering) demonstrated her chocolate cake recipe. Photo courtesy WASIO Faces

In his session, Beef & Reef, Jason Sutton (Footers Catering) offered a steak sample (accompanied by a gorgonzola dipping sauce prepared by Karen O'Connor with Daniel et Daniel). Photo courtesy WASIO Faces

Chris Towne (Partyman Catering) served a Pork Belly Steamed Bun Skewer (braised pork belly, scallions, peanuts, bao buns, and sesame cucumber) during his session, Apps That Slap! Photo courtesy WASIO Faces

Chris Towne (Partyman Catering) served a Miniature Chicken and Waffle Cone (fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and remoulade served in a miniature waffle cone) during his session, Apps That Slap! Photo courtesy WASIO Faces

Karen O'Connor (Daniel et Daniel) discussed various condiment recipes during her session, Top That!, including: banana ketchup, green chermoula labneh, beet jam, scallion ginger relish, green apple & bacon vinaigrette, red chimichurri, wowee mustard sauce, and coffee orange marinade. Photo courtesy WASIO Faces 

At only 30 minutes each, the Round Robins kept chefs moving, tasting, and learning. 

Tour time 

As AOCF came to a close, it was time to get attendees offsite for a field trip! Attendees boarded busses (complete with tasty charcuterie boxes) for a tour of Puff ‘n Stuff Events & Catering’s production and warehouse facility. The award-winning Orlando caterer (and member of the Leading Caterers of America) welcomed AOCF attendees with not one, not two, but four action stations (and plenty of samples of course) before giving a behind-the-scenes look at their operations. Their facility was truly a ‘site’ to behold! Don’t miss the summer issue of Catersource magazine for more on Puff n’ Stuff’s facility.  

Puff n’ Stuff’s chefs and kitchen staff were on hand to answer any questions about the kitchen and its culinary operations.  Photo courtesy WASIO Faces

Puff ‘n Stuff served up hanging tomahawks (live grilled in front of attendees) along with house made chips, and local ales. Photo courtesy WASIO Faces

AOCF is officially back, and Catersource Conference & Tradeshow is extremely thankful to everyone (our speakers, our volunteers, and of course the ICA) to make it happen. Next stop: Austin, TX (February 12-15, 2024).  


Amber Kispert

Senior Content Producer

Amber is the Senior Content Producer for Catersource. Amber previously worked as a Communications Specialist for LeClair Group and a reporter for the Woodbury Bulletin, both located in Woodbury, Minn.  As a self-described "foodie," Amber loves to experience the world of food and beverages, and is excited to help share the stories of Catersource and the world's caterers.